Two Forms of the Free Process Defense

March 10th, 2015 / 10 Comments

One of the more interesting proposals for understanding God’s relation to evil in the natural world is the “free process defense.” Not many realize, however, this proposal comes in two forms. I affirm one but not the other.

The Basic Free Process Defense10856481_10152580707326455_4268171361201138151_o-2

The basic idea of the free process defense to the problem of evil says the natural world is a dynamic place made up of interacting systems. These interacting systems depend upon one another and mutually influence one another. A disturbance or variation of one part of the system can have dramatic effects in other parts.

The free process defense says God wants a world with these interrelated and interdependent processes and systems. We need this kind of world for the possibility of freedom, a measure of spontaneity, and genuine randomness.

A world fully controlled by God would have no natural evil. But such a world would also not support free creatures, self-organization, or randomness. A totally determined world has no room for novelty.

A totally determined world has no room for novelty. Click To Tweet

The free process defense says God could not interrupt the regularities of existence without God causing greater negative consequences in existence. In fact, God not interrupting the processes of the world is, theologically speaking, as sign of divine faithfulness. As John Polkinghorne puts it, “the regularities of the mechanical aspects of nature are to be understood theologically as signs of the faithfulness of the Creator.”[1]

Voluntary Divine Self-Limitation and the Free Process Defense

The free process defense comes in two forms. Let me begin with the form I find unsatisfactory. Let’s call it the voluntarily divine self-limitation free process defense.

This form says God could interrupt the free processes of the world to prevent genuine evils from occurring. God could momentarily suspend the processes, conditions, and laws of the universe to prevent evil. But God usually chooses not to interrupt the systems and processes, because doing so would, in some way, throw the whole universe off kilter.

This first form of the free process defense encounters a major problem. It assumes God’s failure to interrupt world processes is a voluntary choice. In other words, the first form of the free process says God could stop evil by “fiddling with” the processes of existence. But God voluntarily chooses not to do so.

We may think wide-scale changes to the world could do more harm than good. But we’re also prone to believe a small change in a particular instance should be possible to prevent evil. It’s difficult to imagine that God fiddling in any situation throws off kilter every situation.

It’s difficult to imagine that God fiddling in any situation throws off kilter every situation. Click To Tweet

For instance, we might think preventing an impending hurricane would have far-reaching negative effects on ecosystems that need the replenishing only drastic weather can bring. So we may think God would choose not to stop the hurricane.

But most people could also imagine God stopping a rape by momentarily shifting some natural system, fiddling with the rapist’s brain chemical balance, or adjusting some minor variable in a local circumstance. It’s very hard to see how this minor adjustment to some physical process would throw the whole universe out of whack.

Involuntary Divine Self-Limitation and the Free Process Defense

The second form of the free process defense says God’s failure to interrupt the free processes of creation derives from God’s eternal nature of love. This is part of a larger model of providence I call, “Essential Kenosis.”

Essential kenosis says God necessarily gives agency and self-organization to creation and this giving derives from God’s loving essence. The dynamic, sometimes chaotic, and partially random universe with its various systems and processes emerges from God’s necessarily creative and kenotic love. To put it another way, the free process of life is an essential expression of divine grace not an arbitrary decision.

Essential kenosis overcomes the problem in the form of the free process defense that says God’s gifting is entirely voluntary. Creation’s processes and law-like regularities derive from God’s persistent and loving activity. These regularities are neither entirely voluntary nor do they transcend God from the outside. Rather, God’s loving activities reflect the eternally unchanging divine essence of love.

Rather than being an external watchmaker, God’s ongoing, ever-influential love conditions all creation as the One in whom all things live and move and have their being.

God’s loving activities reflect the eternally unchanging divine essence of love. Click To Tweet

God’s Faithful Love is Necessarily Expressed

Essential kenosis agrees with the Apostle Paul’s claim that God “cannot deny himself.” The Creator’s faithfulness derives from the divine nature of love. In fact, it is in the context of the Apostle Paul emphasizing divine faithfulness that we find the biblical claim about God’s inherent limitations: “God remains faithful,” because God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tm 2:13).

Because God’s universal and steadfast self-giving love has the effect of establishing law-like regularities throughout creation, God cannot interrupt these regularities.  Interrupting law-like regularities would require God to fail to provide existence to portions of creation. But God cannot do this. Because God’s nature is love, God cannot override the order that emerges nor does God establish that order arbitrarily.

Polkinghorne says that the regularities described by physics “are pale reflections of [God’s] faithfulness towards his creation.” He speculates that God “will not interfere in their operation in a fitful or capricious way, for that would be for the Eternally Reliable to turn himself into an occasional conjurer.”[2]

I agree with Polkinghorne’s first comment. But I would say the divine nature of kenotic love entails that God cannot interfere with these law-like regularities, not that God will not interfere. The processes and regularities in life derive from God’s nature of necessarily self-giving love.

The processes and regularities in life derive from God’s nature of necessarily self-giving love. Click To Tweet

Conclusion

This is one of the ideas I’m proposing in my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. The book project was made possible by a grant from the Providence and Randomness project, directed by James Bradley. In fact, grant recipients are meeting in early June at Fuller Theological Seminary to discuss their research. Look for details on the conference as the dates draw near.

 

[1] In Thomas Jay Oord, ed. The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, Faith and the Search for Meaning (London: SPCK; Philadelphia: Templeton, 2010), 124-25.

[2] John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005), 30.

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Comments

Jim Bradley

A very interesting and helpful posting! I do have a concern, though. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you.

The idea that God will not interfere with law-like regularities is right, I think, but the way you say it here sounds too much like deism. Christians tried this response to Newton’s laws back in the 18th century; the result was that by the 19th C. much of he intelligentsia responded to the claim that God initiated the whole process by joining Laplace in saying saying “I have no need of that hypothesis.” I could say more but I’d like to hear your response first.


thomasjayoord

Jim,

Thanks for the response. I can see how my brief post may lead one to think I’m championing deism. I’m not. I think God is not only omnipresent and a necessary current cause of every event in the universe, I also think divine action varies from moment to moment. This is one of the points I emphasize in my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.

Thanks!

Tom


Joel Potter

Hi Tom,

I heard your talk at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society on the same topic last week. What I still wonder is why being essentially loving entails being uncontrolling (or never serving as “a sufficient cause for something,” which is the language you used at WPS). Based upon the talk and your post, I take this to be something you are committed to on the Involuntary Divine Self-Limitation view along with the claim that God is essentially loving.

P1 God is essentially loving.
P2 Being essentially loving entails never serving as a sufficient cause for something else.

I accept P1 but I don’t see why one should accept P2. Of course, I agree that in many cases that one who is essentially loving will not attempt to completely determine some outcome but I don’t see why this necessarily follows in every case from being loving.

Is the reason for accepting P2 that it enables one to provide a satisfactory response to the problem of evil? That, in itself, doesn’t seem to me good reason for accepting P2. For one thing, other similar stipulations about the nature of, say, power or knowledge could render similar results.


thomasjayoord

Joel,

Thanks for your note. You seem to understand my position pretty well. There are additional details, of course, but you’ve got the heart of it.

In my mind, offering a satisfactory response to the problem of evil is pretty important. It’s the primary reason most atheists say they reject theism. I guess we disagree on whether this is a good reason to affirm that God cannot be a sufficient cause. But maybe I’m misunderstanding your point. Can you explain your last sentence more, for instance?

Tom


Joel Potter

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your response to my question. I agree with you that offering a response to the problem of evil is very important. If either a logical or an evidential version of the problem of evil holds against a view of God, then this provides prima facie support for rejecting that view of God.

What I meant at the end of my post was that just because a view of God and the attributes ascribed to God avoids the problem of evil that in itself is not a good reason for thinking that view of God and the attributes ascribed to God is correct, since many views of God and the attributes of God are compatible with the presence of evil.

For example, one could stipulate that having power essentially requires not being able to prevent gratuitous evils. Then, given the nature of power, the existence of an all-powerful God is compatible with the existence of gratuitous evils. But just because this view of the nature of power helps the theist avoid the problem of evil that isn’t a good reason for thinking that that view of power is correct. In fact this view of power seems problematically ad hoc, defined by theists in this way just to avoid the problem of evil and not because of some independent reason for thinking that the nature of power must be this way.

I can see how testing views of God against the problem of evil may provide additional reason for accepting a particular view if of all the plausible views of God only one passes the test (i.e., the other views are incompatible with or very improbable given gratuitous evil).

My original question was about the reasons for finding the claim that love is essentially (and not just in some cases) uncontrolling initially plausible.


thomasjayoord

Thanks, Joel. This helps me understand your post better.

Your main point seems to be in these words:

“But just because this view of the nature of power helps the theist avoid the problem of evil that isn’t a good reason for thinking that that view of power is correct. In fact this view of power seems problematically ad hoc, defined by theists in this way just to avoid the problem of evil and not because of some independent reason for thinking that the nature of power must be this way.”

I agree with you that the problem evil should not be the only reason for choosing one theory of divine power over others, although I think it’s a very strong reason. But I’m struck by your statement that this seems ad hoc. Perhaps you think this, in the main, because you haven’t seen the rest of my arguments for why we should think God’s power is essentially uncontrolling. I explore these reasons in my book, The Nature of Love, and I’m also addressing many in my forthcoming book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. I hope you are able to get a chance to look those over.

One other thing that struck me about your statement was your words about having some “independent reason” for affirming a particular view of God’s power. Unless this reason is purely logical, I don’t see how having an independent reason is, in itself, strong enough. And that seems to be your worry in the first part of your criticism that I’m focusing on the problem of evil exclusively.

But if the issue is independent in the sense of being logical, I think there are a myriad of possible theories of divine power that are logical. There’s nothing about the idea of God or the greatest conceivable being (to appeal to Anselm) that requires one view divine power and not others, so long as they are all logical. Admittedly, the Christian tradition has been drawn toward some views rather than others. But that doesn’t them logical or independent in an essential way that others views may not be logical or independent. But maybe you’re got something different in mind when you talk about “independent reason.”

Thanks again!

Tom


Joel Potter

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the reply. I just wanted to make two quick clarifications.

First, about the view of powerfulness that I said was ad hoc. I wasn’t attributing this view to you. I was giving an example of one of many possible accounts of attributes ascribed to God that will render belief in God compatible with belief in extensive evil. Some of these are a lot more ridiculous and may have been better to use to help make my point. For example, consider the view that being powerful entails being a Cheeto (the junk food). Given this account of being powerful, it follows that an all-powerful being can’t prevent much evil. My point is that since any number of accounts of the attributes ascribed to God can pass the “problem of evil test” (including some that are obviously false like the Cheeto view) it must be for other reasons that we accept one account and not another.

If the only reason given for accepting an account is that it avoids the problem of evil, the non-theist to my mind is right to reply, “I see how endorsing this account of X is useful to you as a theist to avoid certain problems generated by belief in a being that is perfectly X but what about being X per se entails these extra conditions or limitations?” In the same way, I see why conceiving of love as essentially uncontrolling is useful for avoiding the problem of evil. What I am wondering is what is it about being loving per se that entails being uncontrolling. What is it about desiring others good for their sake or desiring communion with others or whatever we take to be essential about being loving entails not being a sufficient cause?

Second, by “independent reason” I just meant some other reason for accepting an account of the nature of some attribute (e.g., being loving, powerful, a knower) besides its usefulness for avoiding the problem of evil. This could be logical coherence (internally or with other things we think we know) as you suggest. However, I assume we may also have reasons for accepting a view based on experience, tradition, scripture, rational intuition, etc. I don’t assume possession of such reasons provides conclusive support for a view, though it may make it reasonable for a person to accept the view.

Thanks, again, for the discussion. I’ll have to take a look at your books.


Andy Lindstrom

What if the nature of God’s love compelled Him to do nothing directly (and only do indirectly through His agents) until they were no longer able to accomplish what it was that he had set them out to do? There are aspects of free process that I can follow and see merit in, but I don’t see how they fit with the person of Jesus and the one day destruction and recreation of it all (both of which I firmly believe in).


Daniel Brady

Interesting article Thomas, the problem of evil (especially natural evil) has been bothering me for some time.

I wonder how you square the idea that God does not (voluntarily or involuntarily) intervene in the natural order with the idea that God performs miracles (e.g. Jesus’ restoration of sight to the blind)?


thomasjayoord

Good question, Daniel. I deal with miracles in chapter 8 of The Uncontrolling Love of God and chapter 3 of God Can’t. But you can find partial answers in my other blog essays. Search “Oord” and “Miracles” and you’ll probably find those partial answers.


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